By Joe Platania

It can never be said that a professional athlete retires because he doesn’t have the stomach for the sport.

After all, it’s intestinal fortitude, a strong will and unwavering belief in team and self that make someone succeed at the highest levels of any sport.

However, when the 1972 season ended, former Baltimore Colts running back Tom Matte brought the curtain down on a 12-year career that included two Super Bowl appearances and one championship.

He did it because, literally, he just didn’t have the guts.

“I had to have my stomach cut up,” Matte said. “It was after [Colts general manager] Joe Thomas had his purge of the team, where he got rid of everybody. He traded me and John [Unitas] to San Diego.

“But I knew my health wasn’t so good, and I went from 236 pounds to 187 and had a staph infection on top of that. I had an offer to be a player-coach, but it was time for me to step down.”

Matte went to work for local firm Peterson, Howell and Heather and later became known to a whole new generation of football fans as the Baltimore Ravens’ enthusiastic game day radio analyst from 1996 to 2005.

Naturally, that brought Matte into the path of Ravens left tackle Jonathan Ogden, who retired last week in front of a packed media auditorium at the team’s Owings Mills training complex.

The two men shared the same line of work and participated for the same number of years with both leaving the profession due to health issues.

But as much as Matte and his long-ago teammates are and always will be revered in the community, Ogden came along during a current era in which athletes are viewed more cynically by the public and held to a higher standard of behavior. As a result, Ogden’s clearly stated intentions to maintain a presence in the Baltimore area and to continue to run his charitable foundation have been roundly lauded in the first week of his post-football life.

However, do not totally misunderstand the situation.

After being involved in a brutal, physical game like football for the last 22 seasons, and after being an uncommonly civil, gracious man in a violent world, Ogden is showing he’s no different than any other NFL retiree.

He’s going to relax and take his time honing his golf game while deciding what to do next.

“I’ve talked to a couple guys — actually Darrell Green, Anthony Muñoz, Eric Dickerson — a lot of guys who golf. I’ve talked to them a little about the transition,” Ogden said. “Everyone has a little different advice. I think the advice I like the most is don’t rush into anything. I’ve been doing something for so long that I might need to take a little time. With that being said, I know that I can’t play golf forever.

“Primarily, right now, I’m going to focus on staying involved in the Baltimore community. Really, that’s one thing I know that I want to do. How I’m going to get about it, how I’m going to accomplish that, I’m not sure.”

CHARM CITY TREASURE

One thing is certain about Ogden — his entire career arc is the consummate Baltimore sports story.

Ogden’s career has smoothly followed the lead of other Charm City luminaries such as Unitas, Brooks Robinson, Wes Unseld and Cal Ripken Jr., in which a high-profile athlete plays the bulk of his career here and, with little fanfare and no self promotion, changes the course of his position and sport in the process.

“No, there was never a [thought about playing elsewhere],” Ogden said. “That’s one thing about this organization — from when Art [Modell] was here to Steve [Bisciotti], all these guys — it’s a first-class organization.

“There’s never been any time when I felt like they didn’t want me here or I felt like I didn’t want to be here. It was just a perfect match when I got picked by this organization.”

Unitas was the first of the great two-minute quarterbacks, Robinson brought stellar third base play into the national consciousness, Unseld showed how an undersized center could compete at the pro level, and Ripken was the first big man to master the shortstop position.

In that vein, what set Ogden apart from other offensive tackles is the fact that he could use his superior height, awesome strength and dazzling footwork to wall off incoming pass rushers from both the first and second levels without any help. As a result, most teams today use a tight end on the right side out of habit because they want their left tackles to provide few, if any, blind-side worries for their mostly right-handed quarterbacks.

Not only that, quarterbacks now are a lot freer to use shorter dropbacks and more receivers in the formation to boost their passing attacks.
On running plays, Ogden teamed with at least seven different left guards and centers — the latter lined up next to him during his 1996 rookie season at left guard — to form one of the league’s best run-oriented, ball-control offenses.

Ogden showed that when the rigid tasks of an offensive tackle are performed well, they can make quite a difference to a football team — and to the player’s bank account.

As the Ravens’ rather pedestrian offensive approach did lead to a Super Bowl win, four playoff appearances and two division titles in Ogden’s career, the pay scale for offensive tackles accelerated to a level reserved for the so-called “skill position” players.

In fact, Ogden was the league’s highest paid player in the 2000 Super Bowl season, making a total of $16 million and signing a six-year, $44 million contract extension that same year.

PAVING THE WAY FOR SUCCESS

That kind of resume and presence has earned Ogden plenty of admiration around town, especially from the football team at Patterson High School.

It’s quite unlikely that anyone on the Clippers’ varsity squad, several members of which attended the retirement press conference, will earn the kind of money Ogden did.But thanks to the future Hall of Fame tackle, one thing they’ll still get is a chance at a good life.

The school’s “Play It Smart” program, spearheaded by Ogden, is one of 30 such programs scattered around the country. In its first two years alone, the Clippers’ team grade-point average rose by 17.6 percent and the gridders’ SAT scores were up an average of 30 points.

Not only that, but over 98 percent of Patterson’s senior student-athletes graduated and performed more than 1,800 cumulative community service hours before doing so.

“[Ogden] has been instrumental in helping hundreds of students graduate from high school and go on to college,” Patterson academic coach Kelly Bagdasarian said. “He is well-respected and admired at Patterson. We are thankful for all he has done for our students.”

Not only that, Ogden’s high profile has led to star-studded attendance at his two annual golf tournaments that benefit his many initiatives.

The first took place in late April at the South Shore Golf Course in Henderson, Nev., with the second teeing off at Waverly Woods not even 24 hours after his retirement announcement.

Ogden has indicated that the locally based tournament will continue. In recent years it has no longer become unusual for a retired or much-traveled player to continue to contribute to a community in which he no longer plays.

That’s especially true in Baltimore, where the Ravens have upwards of 20 player foundations and their own All-Community Team Foundation.

Former Ravens left guard Edwin Mulitalo, who lined up next to Ogden for eight seasons (1999-2006), is proof of that. The Big Ed’s Band Foundation is one of Baltimore’s best-known initiatives for trying to keep music programs alive in area schools.

Mulitalo, now with the Detroit Lions, certainly isn’t surprised that Ogden is maintaining his Baltimore presence.

“He is a cool cat,” Mulitalo said of his former linemate. “We had a lot of great experiences together. Those are the kind of things that keep you going after football. Obviously, football is the thing that brings us together. [But] when it’s done, then you see the true character of who we really are.”

STILL CONTRIBUTING

On and off the field, Ogden has continually and relentlessly worked to make himself and his organization better.

On the field, it was personified most clearly by his 80-yard downfield run in Honolulu’s Aloha Stadium in February 1998, when he ran down Dallas cornerback and future teammate Deion Sanders after the latter had picked off an AFC pass during the Pro Bowl.

Off the field, it showed whenever Ogden threw his helmet and railed at teammates and coaches after another long drive ended with no points.

That sort of inner competitiveness won’t be going away any time soon. Ogden said last week that he’ll be watching the Ravens weekly and will “cuss out” any ex-teammates that don’t play up to his considerable standard.

For the past two seasons, former Ravens defensive ends Rob Burnett and Michael McCrary have helped tutor that position group at training camp. Even for a team that’s only been around a dozen years, the Ravens’ alumni have given off an aura that makes it seem as if the team has been around for much longer.

Former offensive linemen such as Spencer Folau and Wally Williams have had a media presence and punter Kyle Richardson and ex-tackle Orlando Brown still maintain frequent contact with the team.

Like all of them, Ogden is fervently interested in the Ravens’ future.

“Right now, I just want to see all the young guys, Jared Gaither, Adam Terry, come in, and [I will] still stay around here for a bit to help these young guys get better,” Ogden said.

But as far as his immediate future is concerned, Ogden sees it as two-pronged.

“[I’ll do] two things: play golf and stay involved in the community,” Ogden said. “Those two things I’m going to do. As far as a year or two from now, we’ll see. You can’t worry about what you’re going to do [and let that] make you stay here in this game. I can’t let that affect my decision, so I’m just going to go out and roll the dice like I’m in Vegas. I’ll just roll them and see what happens.”

No matter what number appears on the dice and no matter what Ogden chooses to do in his post-gridiron life, one thing is clear.

“I’m a Baltimore Raven for life, obviously,” Ogden said. “I mean, there’s no doubt.”It doesn’t take much of a stomach to say that.

Issue 3.25: June 19, 2008

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